Tri­umph of rock and roll

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Steve Ter­rell

For about a decade af­ter the na­tion’s in­de­pen­dence from France in the early 1950s, there was a great cul­tural bloom in Cam­bo­dia. The coun­try was rel­a­tively pros­per­ous. Ph­nom Penh, its cap­i­tal, was alive and thriv­ing. The an­cient cul­ture was strong — in fact, strong enough not to be threat­ened by en­croach­ing mod­ern West­ern cul­ture. Dur­ing this time, be­fore the war in neigh­bor­ing Viet­nam spilled over and even­tu­ally en­gulfed the land, Cam­bo­di­ans joy­fully wel­comed the out­side world: mo­tor­cy­cles, miniskirts, and long hair. They didn’t miss out on the ’60s in Cam­bo­dia. They loved the cha cha cha from Cuba. They loved soul mu­sic and rock ’n’ roll from the U.S.A. — and from France, Eng­land, and wher­ever else it drifted in from.

As shown in the new doc­u­men­tary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cam­bo­dia’s Lost Rock and Roll, by John Pirozzi, this was a sweet dream that ended bru­tally. Com­mu­nist rebels known as the Kh­mer Rouge took over Cam­bo­dia in 1975. Led by a shad­owy fig­ure named Pol Pot, the new lead­ers forced mass evac­u­a­tions from Ph­nom Pehn and other cities, and for the next four years, in their ef­fort to build a so­cial­ist par­adise, they ba­si­cally turned the whole na­tion into a big agri­cul­tural pri­son camp. With grim ve­he­mence the Kh­mer Rouge tar­geted in­tel­lec­tu­als, pro­fes­sion­als, artists, and, yes, mu­si­cians. They al­most de­stroyed a na­tion, in­clud­ing its mu­sic.

An­other ter­ri­ble truth: Some of the big­gest stars of Cam­bo­dian pop and rock — in­clud­ing Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran (some­times spelled Pan Ron), and Yol Au­larong — ap­par­ently ended up in un­marked graves in the killing fields dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge years. No­body, not even their sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers, knows ex­actly when or where they died. Although Pirozzi cer­tainly doesn’t pull any punches about the Kh­mer Rouge, for­tu­nately the doc­u­men­tary is not just about slaugh­ter, re­pres­sion, and hor­ror. The first part of the film deals with the good times, the crazy mu­sic, and the amaz­ing mu­si­cians who made it.

Dur­ing that heady golden age, Cam­bo­dia was ruled by a prince named Norodom Si­hanouk. He might be the clos­est thing to a benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor the world has seen in mod­ern times. You might say he gov­erned with a vel­vet fist. Not only was he the man in charge, Si­hanouk was an artist, a poet, a film­maker — and a mu­si­cian. He sang, and he played sax. He was a prince, and he was funky! Si­hanouk com­posed mu­sic, in­clud­ing a pa­tri­otic an­them called “Ph­nom Penh,” which ap­pears in the doc­u­men­tary and on its ex­cel­lent sound­track al­bum, per­formed by mem­bers of the Royal Uni­ver­sity of Fine Arts. (The song orig­i­nally ap­peared in Si­hanouk’s mid-’60s movie, The En­chanted For­est.) Si­hanouk or­dered gov­ern­ment de­part­ments to start their own orches­tras. His regime spon­sored singing con­tests around the coun­try. The na­tional ra­dio sta­tion moved away from fo­cus­ing on dull gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda to blast­ing cool mu­sic.

It is true Si­hanouk didn’t put up with much dis­sent. As the film points out, he cracked down hard on Com­mie in­sur­gents from the ru­ral ar­eas. Watch­ing the movie, it seems Si­hanouk con­sid­ered th­ese rebels not only to be traitors but party poop­ers as well. He adopted a pol­icy of neu­tral­ity dur­ing the Cold War. That be­came harder as the fight­ing in Viet­nam es­ca­lated next door. The drums of war would even­tu­ally drown out even the loud­est Cam­bo­dian rock bands and spell doom for Cam­bo­dia’s cul­tural oa­sis, but in the mean­time, the kids there rocked out to those wild Amer­i­can sounds brought there by tin sol­diers and Nixon’s com­ing.

Si­hanouk was over­thrown by a right-wing, U.S.backed coup in 1970. He later joined forces with the very Com­mu­nist in­sur­gents he’d once re­pressed. But as soon as the Kh­mer Rouge took power, Si­hanouk ba­si­cally ended up un­der house ar­rest.

I’ve been lis­ten­ing to Cam­bo­dian rock­ers like Sisa mouth (who Pirozzi has de­scribed as the Frank Sinatra and Elvis Pres­ley of Cam­bo­dia) and Sothea for nearly a decade, ever since I be­came a fan of Dengue Fever, a Cal­i­for­nia band that was sparked by Cam­bo­dian rock from this era. But un­til watch­ing

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, I didn’t know any­thing about their lives — ex­cept that they prob­a­bly were killed by Pol Pot’s bully boys. De­spite fac­ing some ob­vi­ous lim­i­ta­tions, Pirozzi brings th­ese artists to life. Un­for­tu­nately, not much footage of the mu­si­cians sur­vived the great de­struc­tion. How­ever, the film­maker found tons of great pho­tos, in­clud­ing an amaz­ing col­or­ful gallery of record cov­ers. He tracked down sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers — Sothea’s sis­ter and Sisa mouth’s son, Sin Chanch­haya (who died ear­lier this year shortly af­ter win­ning the legal rights to more than 70 of his dad’s songs).

He also found some mu­si­cians who sur­vived the Pol Pot years. There is Mol Kag­nol of the band Bak­sey Cham Krong — the group could play surf mu­sic as well as what sounds like a twangy coun­try bal­lad (the song “Full Moon”). There is also an in­ter­view with a fe­male singer named Sieng Van­nthy, who re­calls Nancy Sinatra in miniskirt and go-go boots in her star years. Van­nthy, who died in 2009, tells how she avoided prob­a­ble ex­e­cu­tion by ly­ing and telling the Kh­mer Rouge sol­diers that she was a ba­nana ven­dor, not a singer.

I once wrote that Dengue Fever, by turn­ing so many peo­ple on to long-forgotten Cam­bo­dian rock, rep­re­sented “a sweet, sym­bolic tri­umph of free­dom over to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism; of rock ’n’ roll over the killing fields; of sex, joy, fast cars, and loud gui­tars over the forces of gloom and re­pres­sion.” That goes triple for

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten. This story needs to be told, and this mu­sic needs to be heard. The film opens on Fri­day, June 12, at The Screen. Visit www.dtifcam­bo­dia.com for in­for­ma­tion about the doc­u­men­tary and www.dust-dig­i­tal.com/cam­bo­dia for the sound­track.

Si­hanouk was an artist, a poet, a film­maker — and a mu­si­cian. He sang, and he played sax. He was a prince, and he was funky!

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